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Ethics Code and Ethical Decision Making

Ethics Code and Ethical Decision Making

As an articulation of the universal moral values intrinsic to the discipline, the aspirational principles are intended to inspire right action but do not specify what those actions might be. The ethical standards that will be discussed in later chapters of this book are concerned with specific behaviors that reflect the application of these moral principles to the work of psychologists in specific settings and with specific populations. In their everyday activities, psychologists will find many instances in which familiarity with and adherence to specific Ethical Standards provide adequate foundation for ethical actions. There will also be many instances in which (a) the means by which to comply with a standard are not readily apparent, (b) two seemingly competing standards appear equally appropriate, (c) application of a single standard or set of standards appears consistent with one aspirational principle but inconsistent with another, or (d) a judgment is required to determine if exemption criteria for a particular standard are met.

The Ethics Code is not a formula for solving these ethical challenges. The Ethics Code provides psychologists with a set of aspirations and broad general rules of conduct that must be interpreted and applied as a function of the unique scientific and professional roles and relationships in which they are embedded. Psychologists are not moral technocrats simply working their way through a maze of ethical rules. Successful application of the principles and standards of the Ethics Code involves a conception of psychologists as active moral agents committed to the good and just practice and science of psychology. Ethical decision making thus involves a commitment to applying the Ethics Code to construct rather than simply discover solutions to ethical quandaries.

This chapter discusses the ethical attitudes and decision-making strategies that can help psychologists prepare for, identify, and resolve ethical challenges as they continuously emerge and evolve in the dynamic discipline of psychology. An opportunity to apply these strategies is provided in the 10 case studies presented in Appendix B.

Ethical Commitment and Virtues

The development of a dynamic set of ethical standards for psychologists’ work-related conduct requires a personal commitment and lifelong effort to act ethically; to encourage ethical behavior by students, supervisees, employees, and colleagues; and to consult with others concerning ethical problems.

—APA (2010c, Preamble)

Ethical commitment refers to a strong desire to do what is right because it is right (Josephson Institute of Ethics, 1999). In psychology, this commitment reflects a moral disposition and emotional responsiveness that move psychologists to creatively apply the APA’s Ethics Code principles and standards to the unique ethical demands of the scientific or professional context.

The desire to do the right thing has often been associated with moral virtues or moral character, defined as a disposition to act and feel in accordance with moral principles, obligations, and ideals—a disposition that is neither principle bound nor situation specific (Beauchamp & Childress, 2001; MacIntyre, 1984). Virtues are dispositional habits acquired through social nurturance and professional education that provide psychologists with the motivation and skills necessary to apply the ideals and standards of the profession (see, e.g., Hauerwas, 1981; Jordan & Meara, 1990; May, 1984; National Academy of Sciences, 1995; Pellegrino, 1995). Fowers (2012) describes virtues as the cognitive, emotional, dispositional, behavioral, and wisdom aspects of character strength that motivates and enables us to act ethically out of an attachment to what is good.

Focal Virtues for Psychology

Many moral dispositions have been proposed for the virtuous professional (Beauchamp & Childress, 2001; Keenan, 1995; MacIntyre, 1984; May, 1984). For disciplines such as psychology, in which codes of conduct dictate the general parameters but not the context-specific nature of ethical conduct, conscientiousness, discernment, and prudence are requisite virtues.

· A conscientious psychologist is motivated to do what is right because it is right, diligently tries to determine what is right, and makes reasonable attempts to do the right thing.

· A discerning psychologist brings contextually and relationally sensitive insight, good judgment, and appropriately detached understanding to determine what is right.

· A prudent psychologist applies practical wisdom to ethical challenges leading to right solutions that can be realized given the nature of the problem and the individuals involved.

Some moral dispositions can be understood as derivative of their corresponding principles (Beauchamp & Childress, 2001). Drawing on the five APA General Principles, Table 3.1 lists corresponding virtues.

The virtues considered most salient by members of a profession will vary with differences in role responsibilities. Benevolence, care, and compassion are often associated with the provision of mental health services. Prudence, discretion, and trustworthiness have been considered salient in scientific decision making. Scientists who willingly and consistently report procedures and findings accurately are enacting the virtue of honesty (Fowers, 2012). Fidelity, integrity, and wisdom are moral characteristics frequently associated with teaching and consultation. Across all work activities the virtue of “self-care” enables psychologists to maintain appropriate competencies under stressful work conditions (see the Hot Topic “The Ethical Component of Self-Care” at the end of this chapter.

“Openness to the other” has been identified as a core virtue for the practice of multiculturalism (Fowers & Davidov, 2006). Openness is characterized by a personal and professional commitment to applying a multicultural lens to our work motivated by a genuine interest in understanding others rather than reacting to a new wave of multicultural “shoulds” (Gallardo, Johnson, Parham, & Carter, 2009). It reflects a strong desire to understand how culture is relevant to the identification and resolution of ethical challenges in research and practice, to explore cultural differences, to respond to fluid definitions of group characteristics, to recognize the realities of institutional racism and other forms of discrimination on personal identity and life opportunities, and to creatively apply the profession’s ethical principles and standards to each cultural context (Aronson, 2006; Fisher, in press; Fowers & Davidov, 2006; Hamilton & Mahalik, 2009; Neumark, 2009; Riggle, Rostosky, & Horne, 2010; D. W. Sue & Sue, 2003; Trimble, 2009; Trimble & Fisher, 2006).

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